Monday, November 23, 1998

My Childhood in China

Had it not been for the military adventurism of the Japanese government in the 1930's, I would have never heard of Changting(长丁). As it was, Changting, a small hamlet in the interior of Fujian province became the temporary home of the University of Amoy, and I was born there on June 4, 1938, in the year of the tiger. My parents, both graduates of the university majoring in marine biology, were on the faculty. The leadership of the university had anticipated that the port of Amoy (now called Xiamen, which means gate to summer) was of too much strategic importance to be overlooked by the encroaching Japanese military and wisely relocated the campus to the rural, mountainous region of no military importance. (Changting, by the way, is close to Jingangshan, where Mao and his fellow Communists held out some ten years earlier.)

Even though the United States will not have officially declared war with Japan until December 1941, China was very much at war with Japan by the time of my birth. (Chinese generally consider the provocation at Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking, now Beijing, on July 7, 1937 as the "official" beginning of the conflict with Japan. Some consider Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria to be the beginning.) Life in China under war conditions was hard. Even so, though I have no real recollection of my infancy, my mother's collection of photographs would indicate that I was the center of attention and suffered no obvious deprivation. While bald babies generally attracted less attention, I had the advantage of being the first born and being a professor's baby, I bathed in the attention of his students as well that of my parents. At that time in China, students spent a lot of their time at the homes of their teachers.

My earliest recollection of my childhood was the night my sister, Helen, was born almost 3.5 years later. Suddenly, there was great activity around the house, and seemingly for the first time, no one was paying any attention to me. I remember gorging on the table of goodies prepared for well wishers and volunteer helpers, and ended crying up a storm because of an excruciating stomach ache. As for my other sisters, Nancy was born after the War was over and Linda was born after we had arrived in the U.S.

We were fortunate to be born with both parents being university graduates, an extraordinarily rare occurrence in China those days. Because of this and because of their parental love and care, we received the best nutrition that could be obtained under the circumstances. I remember as a child having to take cod liver oil regularly, at least while the supply lasted. Later on, probably after the war was over, I remember drinking milk made from canned concentrate and drinking and liking "Ovaltine." The first time I drank milk reconstituted from powder, I thought it was much better than the canned stuff.

My parents went to great length in search of the balanced diet. Vividly etched in my mind were the occasions my father and his students armed with clubs would fan through neighborhoods stalking stray dogs. Once caught, the dogs would be used in laboratory experiments and then served on the family dinner table. My sister and I had no qualms eating dog meat. Meat was meat. My mother did a masterful job of preparing the dishes but she always felt bad over having to serve dog meat to her children.

Probably because Changting had no strategic value, we never faced actual Japanese soldiers. We didn't see any Chinese soldiers either. Changting was simply not worth fighting over. Japanese military forces were spreading pretty thin by the time they reached southern China and taking Changting would have worsened their plight.

We did go on the run a few times heading toward even more remote areas whenever rumors of imminent invasion became too loud to ignore. I remember riding sedan chairs carried by coolies, invariably throwing up in fume filled, antiquated buses, and even once falling out of a sampan into the shallow part of the river. Probably the most traumatic experience while "on the run," at least for my mother, was when I was almost electrocuted. As my mother likes to relate the story, one time we stopped at my parents' friend's residence that had electricity. That was a first for me. Being curious, I climbed on a stool to poke into an open socket. The electricity surged through my hands and I could not let go. In the panic and struggle, I kicked off the stool and my weight was more than the cord dangling from the ceiling could support and promptly snapped, thereby breaking the circuit and thus avoided a real tragedy.

Otherwise, my experience of the war consisted of frequent trips to the air raid shelter. The bloodiest encounter with the War that I can remember was, upon emerging from the air raid shelter, seeing a young man who’s top of the shoulder, shirt and all, was sliced away by bomb shrapnel leaving a flat and round red spot, about the size of a silver dollar.

Perhaps I was too young to know any better and was carefully sheltered from the grimmer aspects of living under siege, but I grew up during the war years happy and content. To play with, I had a tennis ball which, by the time I got it, was worn to the point of being a shiny black ball without any trace of the original felt cover. As the professor's son, I had access to the salamanders kept at the zoology department and used to take them for walks. (I don't recollect eating them, though to this day, salamanders are considered prized delicacies in China.) All in all, compared to most of the Chinese population at that time, my sister and I were very lucky. We didn't have to eat tree bark and I don't remember going really hungry. In short, we were not part of the hungry millions that parents (including mine later on) in the U.S. used to allude to when they are exhorting their children to finish eating the last bit of vegetables from their plates.

After Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender, we moved back to Amoy and life became quite different and traumatic for me. I was between 7 and 8 at the time. My father was one of the fortunate few selected to go the U.S. for further graduate studies, his expenses being paid out of the indemnity funds from Japan. After a false start leading to a nervous breakdown, his paper work eventually cleared and he left for University of Washington in Seattle and I was not to see him for almost four years. During this period, I had the misfortune of being branded a "han jian," a traitor to the ethnic Hans, the dominant ethnic group that make up the Chinese race. Even for an 8 year old, this was a serious charge and I became an outcast in school until my mother came to my rescue.

It came about in this way. After the War, a top national priority was to resume schooling for all the children as soon as possible. Most of the children in occupied China went without schooling during the war years. Consequently, when school began again, the classes contained children with a range of ages. Since I was ahead by two grades for my age, I was among the youngest in the class. Some of my classmates were as much as 5 to 7 years older than I was.

As one can imaging right after the turmoil of war, the availability of qualified teachers was limited. I had the misfortune of getting one of the marginally qualified teachers. In class he frequently resorted to teaching via sloganeering. That is, he would shout out a slogan and we would dutifully holler out the appropriate response. One time when he shouted, "Is Jiang Jie She (Chiang Kai Shek) the greatest leader?" Everyone duly responded with "yes," which of course was the expected answer. Alas, I wasn't paying attention and said "no!" It was strictly unintentional; I could not know enough to intend otherwise.

"Who said that," the teacher asked. "Gu Ping Shan, (my Chinese name) you are a han jian!" "Han jian, han jian," my classmates immediately chanted in unison. That unfortunate "nick name" stuck. I was relentlessly teased by my fellow students, whenever they saw me, or so it seemed at the time. I lost interest in going to school and my report card reflected this change.

When my mother found out about it, she was quite upset that a teacher could be so irresponsible and cruel. She arranged for me to transfer to another school, and I stayed behind to repeat fifth grade again. School was enjoyable once more and I completed the rest of my elementary school education without further incident. The biggest disappointment of my life up to leaving China was when a mistake was made in my name appearing in my grade school diploma. The diploma had to be sent back to the Education Ministry in Nanking for correction. That was June, 1949. The Nationalist government was on the verge of collapse and my family and I were about to leave China to rejoin my father in Seattle. Though I was to earn a number of diplomas later in life, I never have forgotten the disappointment of not getting this colorful and very official looking document that would have been my first.

When my father was selected to go abroad for further education after World War II, he was among a select and fortunate group. It was the dream of virtually every Chinese university graduate to go to the West, especially the U.S., for additional academic training. His dream delayed by the War was about to be realized. Although this meant being separated from his family for an extended period of time, it was a price he and others like him paid without hesitation. In China, this attitude still prevails today.

It took my father two tries to leave China. The first time he reached Shanghai, the port of embarkation, he couldn't pass the physical required to obtain the U.S. visa for some rather arbitrary reasons. His disappointment coupled with the helpless feeling of not being in control of one's life led to a nervous breakdown and severe illness. He ended up convalescing at the home of his younger brother and wife in Shanghai for sometime. When he recovered enough to return to Amoy, he was subdued and quiet. I remember that he brought back the biggest white rubber ball that I had ever seen up to then. He also brought me translations of Kipling's "Jungle Book" and "Emil and the Detective." The books he told me were gifts from my uncle in Shanghai, a modern metropolis where it was possible to get such balls and fascinating books.

After my father got to Seattle, he would include money in the letters he wrote to my mother. The U.S. currency kept us alive during a period of increasing instability. Thanks to runaway inflation, the Chinese currency had no value. The government kept adding zeros to the bills and then changing the standard from silver to gold to no avail. The people had lost complete confidence. My mother would change enough U.S. dollars for us to get by. We could even afford to go to movies and my first introduction to things American was C ration chocolates and Tarzan movies.

I cannot explain why certain childhood memories stay with us all our lives while others are forgotten. The above are some of the "highlights" that I can recall of my childhood in China.